The politics of regulation: Exploring bureaucracy and its consequences for public sector professions

Wednesday, 13 February, 2013 - 13:30
University of Glasgow, School of Education
St. Andrew's Building, Room 433
11 Eldon St
Glasgow G3 6NH
United Kingdom


The new bureaucracy of accountability has altered the landscape of public services since its development in the last several decades. In particular, the implementation of quality assurance mechanisms – audit, inspection, performance indicators, evaluation – has opened up the public sector to ever greater scrutiny. As a tool of political regulation, however, they are not without their critics, accused of among other things, undermining professional autonomy, instrumentalising public services and trivialising democracy. While these criticisms are concerning, from a purely functional point of view the issue is whether or not accountability mechanisms are an effective form of regulation. Previous studies of accountability indicate its tendency to deliver unintended consequences, consequences that have implications for the act of accountability itself. Less established are the reasons why these unintended consequences occur in the first place: why are phenomena such as risk avoidance, impression management and what some have termed the ‘accountability trap’ so prevalent in a public sector supposedly geared towards the efficient delivery of high quality public services?

Based on findings from recent research with public sector professionals in England, this paper argues that at least part of the answer to this question lies in the nature of social regulation itself. The evidence suggests that increased political regulation of teachers, nurses, social workers, among others, has unwittingly highlighted the existence/magnified the importance of, other forms of regulation that tend to get sidelined or forgotten entirely when it comes to talk of regulatory mechanisms – temporal, legal and normative regulation. Exploring the connection between these forms of regulation is important, as they have the effect, in this study at least, of mediating the effect of political regulation on the working lives of public sector professionals. The paper explores this world of regulation and public sector professions via a combination of ideas adopted from neo-Weberian sociology and research in the field of public administration, in particular research informed by the work of Michael Lipsky and his theory of street-level bureaucracy. For more detailed background on the ideas presented in this paper, please go to – I will post up some position papers from the 7th February onwards.

Mark Murphy is Reader in Education, School of Education, University of Glasgow. He previously taught at King’s College London, University of Chester and the University of Stirling. He gained his Doctorate in Education from Northern Illinois University, his dissertation focusing on European Union education policy. Mark has published widely, with numerous articles in journals such as the Journal of Education Policy, Journal of European Public Policy, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, International Journal of Lifelong Education and the British Journal of Sociology of Education. His most recent books include Habermas, critical theory and education (co-edited with Ted Fleming) (Routledge, 2010) and Social theory and education research (4 volumes) (Sage, 2013). Mark’s current research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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